The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday

April 25, 2018
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ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.

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Classical music: UW Choral Director Beverly Taylor talks about her life with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which she will conduct this Sunday afternoon and night

April 20, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” always ranks high on the short list of the greatest choral works ever composed.

And for good reason.

It represents a peak of Bach’s sacred music and his choral compositions.

This Sunday afternoon and night in Mills Hall, Beverly Taylor, director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and the assistant music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the UW Choral Union (below) — comprised of university and community singers — plus soloists and an orchestra, in a performance of the complete work.

At 4 p.m. they will do Part 1 and then at 7:30 p.m., Part 2.

Tickets (one ticket is good for both parts) are $15, $8 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Tickets will also be available at the door.

The Ear is always curious to learn more about the relationship between a professional musician and a towering masterpiece.

He found out more when Taylor (below) recently answered an email Q&A about her past and current experiences with the “St. Matthew Passion”:

When did you first hear the “St. Matthew Passion” and what was your reaction?

I never heard it until my late 20s, would you believe? I’d been through grad school and all its training, and learned German, knew a lot of Bach; and when Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony did it on Good Friday, I sat spellbound for over three hours.

I was shaken to the core by its beauty, and even though it was hardly an early music performance, it was well handled, and one of my favorite British singers, Robert Tear, was the Evangelist. I’ve never forgotten it!

Where do you place the “St. Matthew Passion” among Bach’s works and especially among his many choral works?

As with all masterpieces, it’s hard to choose. It’s the longest work, and its size and scope alone make it a frequent choice of many for favorite work.

It’s more dramatic than the breath-taking B Minor Mass and more meditative than the St. John Passion, but I also love the unbelievable variety of cantatas that Bach (below) produced.

Don’t make me choose!

What role has the “St. Matthew Passion” played in your personal and professional life?

I’d say it’s a pinnacle work. This is only my second time performing it, and I’m unlikely to have the chance again, although one hopes. So I’m invested in its beauty and in its core message of hope in the face of tragedy.

Are there things you would like audiences to know about your upcoming performance?

There are several things.

We have a wonderful cast of soloists, and the orchestra is not the usual student orchestra, since the UW Symphony Orchestra is committed to another program in the near future, but is instead a mixture of students, semi-pros and pros.

The work is set for the two choruses and two orchestras that play with them. Many of the choral movements are set for both orchestras, but Bach varies the texture of each movement by varying who plays in what.

If a listener hasn’t been to a Passion performance before, then you might want to know that:

The character of the Evangelist (sung superbly in this case by Wesley Dunnagan, below) is the narrator of the drama. He is accompanied by the continuo part—which is made up of a keyboard (usually organ with sacred works) and a low melody instrument, usually cello.

The chorus members sing sometimes in the character of Greek chorus commentary, sometimes as characters in the roles of Mob, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, and disciples. Most of this text comes from the book of St. Matthew. However, German theologians wrote commentary that is used for the beautiful Chorales-which basically are hymn-style settings of well-known Lutheran tunes. These chorales turn personal—for instance when Judas betrays Jesus, the chorus, after being a mob, turns around and says in repentance—It is I, I’m the one that killed you. (You can hear the final chorus in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The text is so important, and Bach uses myriad details to bring it out. It is typical that when the text is about death, or evil, or sin, the writing is chromatic, or full of augmented fourth intervals (once nicknamed the devil’s interval). When Jesus has died and been buried, the chorus sings what feels like a lullaby, with the rocking cradle motion. When an earthquake follows Jesus’ death and the curtain of the temple is torn, the continuo cello breaks out of accompaniment mode and tears down the scale like lightning

Although this work presents Bach’s Christian view in the heart of the church year, the scope and issues of faithfulness and disloyalty, trust and fear, should resonate with listeners of all faiths.

We’ve chosen, as some other presenters have, to have a dinner/snack break between the two parts of the three-hour work. One ticket will get you into either or both halves. We do this to give singers and players a little rest, and a little movement to our listeners. Part I runs from 4 p.m. to about 5:15 p.m., and Part II runs from 7:30 p.m. to about 9:15 p.m.


Classical music: Easter is a perfect time to ask: How religious was Johann Sebastian Bach?

March 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday is Easter 2018.

It seems a perfect time ask: How religious was the great Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (below)?

It also seems a perfect time to listen to Bach.

After all, has any composer written more Easter music or greater Easter music than Bach did in his passions, oratorios and cantatas?

According to the new book “Bach and God” by Michael Marissen, Bach — who was composing prolifically in the early days of the Protestant Reformation and Lutheranism — was far more religious than many Bach specialists, especially modern ones, have believed.

Here is a long and highly informative book review from The New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/arts/music/bach-religion-music.html

And while you are reading the book review, you can listen to Bach’s “Easter Oratorio,” BWV 249. Here it is in a YouTube video that features the Bach specialist and scholar John Eliot Gardiner conducting singers and instrumentals — for soloists plus the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists — in a wonderful period-instrument performance, with historically informed performance practices.


Classical music: Today is both Good Friday and Passover. Here is music to mark both religious holidays

March 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Good Friday, 2018.

Today is Passover, 2018.

Today is both religious holidays.

So it is a good time to recall that the original Last Supper that led to Easter WAS a Seder where Jesus Christ and his Disciples celebrated Passover, as depicted in the famous Renaissance painting “The Last Supper” (below) by Leonard da Vinci.

So today The Ear offers Jewish music that is an homage to both Christianity and Judaism.

If you go to YouTube, you can find a lot of music celebrating each event from Johann Sebastian Bach, and before, to the notorious anti-Semite Richard Wagner.

But in the YouTube video at the bottom, The Ear is offering a moving performance of Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo: A Hebrew Rhapsody” as played by cellist Leonard Rose with the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor Lorin Maazel.

The mood of the music feels right for both Passover and Good Friday.

The Ear hopes you agree.


Classical music: The Madison Choral Project features a world premiere when it performs a “timeless” program this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

February 9, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Choral Project (below) bills itself as Madison’s only professional and paid choir, and judging by the results, the a cappella group has succeeded,  creating many loyal fans. (You can hear a sample performance — of a world premiere, no less — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Such success is in large part thanks to the efforts of its founder, director and conductor Albert Pinsonneault (below). Originally a music professor at Edgewood College, Pinsonneault now works at Northwestern University.

He commutes from his home in Madison where he continues his work with the Madison Choral Project.

You can sample his and the choir’s impressive music-making this weekend at two performances in two different venues of a concert called “Drown’d in One Endlesse Day.”

Here are details:

“Drown’d in One Endlesse Day” features a world premiere of Wisconsin composer Eric William Barnum (below).

The Madison Choral Project champions new music. But also on the eclectic program are new and old pieces exploring the transformational moments when “time seems to stop.”

Featured composers and compositions include: the motet Komm, Jesu, Komm by Johann Sebastian Bach; “Crucifixus” by Antonio Lotti (below top); There is an Old Belief by the British composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (below second); Credo by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (below third, in photo by Getty Images); I Live in Pain and Last Spring by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer David Lang (below fourth); and Entreat Me Not to Leave You by Dan Forrest (below bottom).

PERFORMANCES:

On Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.: CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, 944 East Gorham Street in Madison on the near east side

On Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.: St. ANDREW’S EPISCOPAL,
1833 Regent Street in Madison on the near west side

Tickets are $40 for preferred seating; $24 for general admission; and $10 for students.

To buy tickets online (they are also available at the door) as well as to see more background, reviews, information and several videos of MCP performances, go to:

http://themcp.org


Classical music: Spend at least part of Christmas Eve with Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”

December 24, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Merry Christmas Eve, all.

The Ear hopes you can spend at least part of it with some sections of “The Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach — perhaps The Ear’s favorite holiday work.

Here it is, in a YouTube video with a spirited early music performance by the critically acclaimed, expert forces of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir:

What is your favorite holiday music?

Leave the name, the composer and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance in the COMMENT section.

Cheers to all!


Classical music: The Madison Choral Project will feature holiday music and seasonal texts at its concerts this Friday night and Sunday afternoon. A local Lawrence University alumni event follows the Sunday afternoon performance

December 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Choral Project has sent the following announcement to be posted:

PLEASE NOTE: WE’VE CHANGED VENUES!

The fifth annual holiday concert by the Madison Choral Project (below) is called “Old Lessons and New Carols” and features a carefully curated selection of vocal music and readings.

The intent is to lead the listener along a sublime journey of music and text, perfect for this reflective season. (Sorry, The Ear has received no word about specific composers, authors or works on the program.)

Performances are: Friday night, Dec. 15, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 17, at 3 p.m.

Both concerts are located at the CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, 944 East Gorham Street.

Tickets are $24 for adults and $10 for students, who must show an ID.

For more information, go to: Old Lessons and New Carols

In addition, the Lawrence University Club of Madison will hold a gathering of alumni and prospective students after the concert on Sunday afternoon.

A special Lawrence reception will be held after the performance that will include a Q&A with Lawrence alumna and Madison Choral Project soprano Rachel Edie Warrick ’99 (below top), as well as the choir’s artistic director and conductor, Albert Pinsonneault (below bottom).

General admission is $24 per adult in advance, and $28 at the door. Admission for students, who must show ID, is $10 either in advance or at the door.

For tickets and more information about the Madison Choral Project, go to: http://themcp.org


Classical music: Madison Youth Choirs will perform music of Madison’s nine sister cities this Sunday afternoon and evening

December 8, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

“This semester, Madison Youth Choirs singers (below) are embarking on a musical journey across the globe as they explore and perform compositions connected to the diverse cultures inhabiting Madison’s nine sister cities: Ainaro, East Timor; Arcatao, El Salvador; Camaguey, Cuba; Freiburg, Germany; Kanifing, The Gambia; Mantua, Italy; Obihiro, Japan; Tepatitlán, Mexico; and Vilnius, Lithuania.

“As we study the wide variety of musical forms that emerged from these nine regions and think about the reasons we’re drawn to establish sister city relationships, we’re examining both the common forces that drive the creative expression of artists from all cultures and the unique contributions that artists from our sister cities have made to the worldwide musical canon.

“We invite you to join us for a culminating winter concert series celebrating these international choral connections.

WHERE

Madison Youth Choirs Winter Concerts, “Sister Cities

First Congregational United Church of Christ

1609 University Ave., Madison

WHEN

Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017

1:30 p.m. Girlchoirs

4:00 p.m. Boychoirs

7:00 p.m. High School Ensembles

Tickets available at the door: $10 for general admission, $5 for students 7-18, and free for children under 7. A separate ticket is required for each performance. 

This concert is generously endowed by the Diane Ballweg Performance Fund with additional support from American Girl’s Fund for Children, BMO Harris Bank, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the state of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

About the Madison Youth Choirs (MYC):

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) welcomes singers of all ability levels, annually serving more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, through a wide variety of choral programs in our community. Cultivating a comprehensive music education philosophy that inspires self-confidence, personal responsibility, and a spirit of inquiry leading students to become “expert noticers,” MYC creates accessible, meaningful opportunities for youth to thrive in the arts and beyond.

“SISTER CITIES” PROGRAMS

Sunday, December 10, 2017, First Congregational Church, Madison

1:30 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Girlchoirs)

Choraliers

“Now We Are Met” by Samuel Webbe

“Sakura” Traditional Japanese folk song

“Tecolote” Spanish lullaby, arr. Victoria Ebel-Sabo

“S’Vivon” Traditional Jewish folk song, arr. Valerie Shields

Con Gioia

“Peace Round” Traditional round, text by Jean Ritchie

“Shepherd’s Pipe Carol by John Rutter

“Murasame” by Victor C. Johnson, text: 11th-century Japanese poem

“Guantanamera” Cuban folk song, text by José Marti

Capriccio (below)

“A Circle is Cast” by Anna Dembska

“Ich will den Herrn loben alle Zeit” by Georg Philipp Telemann, arr. Wallace Depue

“Ma come bali bene bela bimba” Traditional Italian, arr. Mark Sirett

“Soran Bushi” Japanese folk song, arr. Wendy Stuart

“Yo Le Canto Todo El Dia” by David L. Brunner

4:00 p.m. Concert (Featuring MYC Boychoirs)

Combined Boychoirs

“Dance for the Nations” by John Krumm, arr. Randal Swiggum

Purcell (below)

“La Nanita Nana” by José Ramon Gomis, arr. David Eddlemann

“Es is Ein Ros entsprungen” by Melchior Vulpius

“Sakura” Traditional Japanese folksong, arranged by Purcell choir members

Britten  (below)

Two Elegies by Benjamin Britten

  1. Old Abram Brown
  2. Tom Bowling

“No che non morira” (from Tito Manlio) by Antonio Vivaldi

Holst

“O Rosetta” by Claudio Monteverdi

“O là, o che bon echo” by Orlando di Lasso

“We Are” by Ysaye Barnwell

Combined Boychoirs

Chorus of Street Boys from Carmen by Georges Bizet

“Kimigayao” (The National Anthem of Japan) Melody by Hiromori Hayashi

7:00 p.m. Concert (Featuring High School Ensembles)

Cantilena

“How Can I Keep From Singing?” by Gwyneth Walker

Liebeslieder Walzer by Johannes Brahms, text by Georg Friedrich Daumer

  1. Wie des Abends (from Opus 52) (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
  2. Vogelein durchrauscht die Luft (from Opus 52)
  3. Nein, geliebter, setze dich (from Opus 65)

Ragazzi

“Bar’chu” by Salamon Rossi

“The Pasture” (from Frostiana) by Randall Thompson

“Mogami Gawa Funa Uta” by Watanabe/Goto, based on folk materials, arr. Osamu

Shimizu

Cantabile

“Angelus ad pastores ait” (from Sacrae Cantiunculae, 1582) by Claudio Monteverdi

“Gamelan” by R. Murray Schafer

“Mata del Anima Sola” by Antonio Estévez

Cantabile and Ragazzi (below)

“The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” Traditional carol from Trinidad, arr. Stephen

Hatfield

Combined Choirs

“Dance for the Nations” by John Krumm


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians perform their seventh annual Baroque Holiday Concert of Bach, Vivaldi and Corelli this Saturday night

December 6, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Bach Musicians will perform their seventh annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below, in a 2014 photo by Kent Sweitzer) this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue, across from Camp Randall stadium.

The concert will be preceded at 7:15 p.m. by a lecture by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson (below), who will talk about period instruments, the pieces and composers on the program, and historically informed performance practices.

The seasonal program features works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi.

Soprano Alisa Jordheim (below top) and baritone Joshua Copland (below bottom) will sing the solo parts in a cantata by Bach.

They will be joined by UW-Madison oboist Aaron Hill (below bottom) and a baroque string ensemble in Bach’s lyrical masterpiece Cantata BWV 32 Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (Dearest Jesus, My Desiring). A aria and a song by Bach will also be performed.

Also on the program is the rarely performed but electrifying chamber cantata or motet “In Furore iustissimae irae,” RV 626, by Vivaldi. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The concert will open with the Concerto Grosso in F Major, Op. 6, No. 12, by Arcangelo Corelli.

The concert will conclude with MBM concertmaster Kangwon Kim as the featured violin soloist in the Winter section from Vivaldi’s popular Four Seasons.

Advance-sale discount tickets are $30 for general admission and are available at Orange Tree Imports and the Willy Street Co-op (East and West).

Advance sale online tickets: www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are $33 for the general public, $30 for seniors (65+). Student Rush tickets for $10 go on sale 30 minutes before the lecture at 6:45 p.m.

For more information, go to: www.madisonbachmusicians.org


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, WCO Chorus and the Festival Choir perform Handel’s “Messiah” this Friday night

December 5, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It was originally intended to be performed at Easter. But is there any piece of holiday music more reliable or more central to the Christmas repertoire than “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel (below bottom)?

It seems neither the performers nor the public ever tires of it. (You can hear the iconic “Hallelujah Chorus” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So this Friday night at 7:00 p.m. “Messiah” returns for its eighth year at Blackhawk Church (below) past Madison’s far west side and located in Middleton.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top), choirs and soloists will all perform under WCO maestro Andrew Sewell (below).

Returning will be last year’s vocal quartet with the combined WCO Chorus and Festival Choir of Madison (below) under directors Scott Foss and Edgewood College professor Sergei Pavlov.

Tickets are $27. The event usually sells out.

For more information about how to obtain tickets as well as photos and extensive background about the soloists, go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah/


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